Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday told the Rajya Sabha that economic growth might have slowed down, but it was not a recession yet and there never would be one, ANI reported. She claimed that India’s real growth in Gross Domestic Product was better during the first term of the Narendra Modi government than in the rule of the previous regime.

Sitharaman said India’s real economic growth rate was 6.4% between 2009 and 2014, but 7.5% in the subsequent five years. “If you are looking at the economy with a discerning view, you see that growth may have come down but it is not a recession yet,” Sitharaman said. Real economic growth refers to the GDP adjusted for inflation.

Sitharaman claimed that the steps taken by the government following her first Union Budget in July have started to show their impact, such as a recovery of the automobile sector, PTI reported. Sitharaman added that direct tax and Goods and Services Tax collections have both seen an increase in the first seven months of the current fiscal, compared to the same period of the last year.

Sitharaman blamed the fall in GDP growth in the last two financial years to the lagged effect of the problem of non-performing assets, which she said was created by the lending policies of the previous United Progressive Alliance government. The Congress members walked out of the House, dissatisfied with Sitharaman’s response.

Earlier in the day, Congress MP Anand Sharma attacked the government over the state of the economy. Sharma said the widening gap between the rich and the poor was frightening, News18 reported. “We can call this merely a slowdown or cyclical crisis,” the Congress leader told the Rajya Sabha. “The numbers are frightening.

He pointed out that the Gross Domestic Product growth rate had fallen to 5%, the lowest in the last seven years, while the automobile and textile sectors had seen millions of jobs being lost. “Our unemployment rate has been at 8%,” Sharma said. “The rate is usually held at 3%.”

The Congress leader said national investment had fallen steeply. “Private sector does not have much to invest,” he added. Sharma blamed demonetisation for destroying India’s informal sector, claiming 90% of informal workers had lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, Union Minister for Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri told the Rajya Sabha that the government will have to close debt-ridden national carrier Air India if it is not privatised, IANS reported.

Lok Sabha

The Centre, meanwhile, withdrew the Jammu and Kashmir (Reservation) Bill, 2019, from the Lok Sabha, PTI reported. This was done as central laws that provide quotas to economically backward upper castes are now applicable in the Union Territory too, after the abrogation of its special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah had introduced the bill in Parliament on June 24. The special status of Jammu and Kashmir was withdrawn on August 5.

The Lok Sabha also passed a bill banning electronic cigarettes, PTI reported. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said the draft law was necessary to protect the youth from a new form of intoxication being promoted by companies.

The Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes (Production, Manufacture, Import, Export, Transport, Sale, Distribution, Storage and Advertisement) Bill, 2019, seeks to replace an ordinance that the government issued on September 18. A statutory resolution moved by the Opposition against the ordinance was defeated by a voice vote, and the House also rejected several amendments that the Opposition proposed.

Vardhan argued that the absence of a ban on tobacco cannot be the justification for “introducing a new addiction.” A person will get injured no matter which floor of a building he or she falls from – 10th or sixth – the health minister told the Lower House. Responding to the Opposition’s criticism about adopting the ordinance route to enact the legislation, Vardhan said: “I can’t be insensitive to the health of our people and the ordinance was a presumptive strike on this hazardous addiction.”

Vardhan pointed out that e-cigarettes can deliver all intoxicant substances, and not only nicotine. He claimed that chemicals in nicotine used for e-cigarettes can cause cancer and cardiovascular diseases, and affects adolescent brains.

The Lower House, meanwhile, passed the Special Protection Group (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which
aims to restore the law’s original provisions, as enacted in 1988, directing the Special Protection Group to protect only the prime minister and former prime ministers, PTI reported. The Congress walked out of the Lok Sabha during the passage of the bill.

Earlier this month, the government’s move to withdraw the SPG security cover of Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi drew heavy criticism from the Opposition party. Congress workers held protest in a number of cities, but Priyanka Gandhi refused to get drawn into the controversy, saying the government’s decision was “part of politics”.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah accused previous governments of diluting the original law from time to time, an apparent reference to the decision to give SPG cover to members of the Gandhi family. The amendment would make the Special Protection Group more efficient, he added.

The Congress opposed the Bill, and demanded that lifelong Special Protection Group cover be provided to the family members of former prime ministers, PTI reported. Manish Tewari sought to know the reasons for withdrawing the Gandhis’ SPG cover, pointing out that in countries such as the United States the Secret Service guards former presidents for life.

Shah said that it was not the culture of the BJP to have a “vindictive approach”, but of the Congress, NDTV reported. “Don’t make me take names but someone rides around at 100 km per hour in Lutyens’ Delhi and security gets left behind,” the Home Minister alleged. “Then no one cares about security.”

The Lok Sabha also passed a bill to merge two Union Territories – Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli – into one. The government believes the merger will improve the administration and check duplication of major works.